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Ovarian Epithelial Cancer Treatment (Professional) (cont.)

Recurrent or Persistent Ovarian Epithelial Cancer Treatment

Overall, approximately 80% of patients diagnosed with ovarian epithelial cancer will relapse after first-line platinum-based and taxane-based chemotherapy and may benefit from subsequent therapies. Early detection of persistent disease by second-look laparotomies after completing first-line treatment is no longer practiced; when the outcomes in the 50% of institutions practicing such procedures were informally compared with the outcomes in those institutions not using such procedures, additional lack of support for them grew, as was found in the case for patients entered in GOG-0158.[1] However, the practice of close follow-up of patients completing treatment by serial CA 125s at intervals of 1 to 3 months was nearly universally adopted. In patients who are in clinical complete remission, increases in CA 125 from their initial treatment represent the most common method to detect disease that will eventually relapse clinically.

A trial by the Medical Research Council and European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer (MRC-OV05, which is now closed) examined the consequences of early institution of treatment for recurrence versus treatment delayed until clinical symptoms appeared.[2] Patients in clinical complete remission after platinum-based chemotherapy were registered and followed with CA 125s only and clinical visits. Upon detection of a twofold elevation over the normal range, patients were randomly assigned to disclosure of the result (and early treatment for recurrence) versus continued blinding and treatment upon development of signs and symptoms indicative of clinical relapse. The number of randomly assigned patients was to exceed 500 in order to yield a superior survival outcome at 2 years with early institution of therapy; this required 1,400 registrations, which were accrued between May 1996 and August 2005. Among 1,442 registrants, 29% continued to show no evidence of relapse, 19% relapsed without evidence of CA 125 doubling beyond normal or at the same time, and another 4% died prior to becoming eligible for random assignment. Registrants had stage III and stage IV disease in 67% of the cases, whereas these stages represented 80% of the randomly assigned patients. The median survival of all patients registered was 70.8 months.

Median survival for patients randomly assigned to early treatment (n = 265) was 25.7 months compared with 27.1 months for those patients in the delayed-treatment group (n = 264) (HR, 0.98; 95% CI, 0.8–1.2). The median delay in instituting second-line chemotherapy was 4.8 months, and the median delay in instituting third-line chemotherapy was 4.6 months. Treatments for second-line chemotherapy were comparable among the two groups (mostly platinum- and taxane-based), whereas third-line treatments were less often applied to the delayed-treatment group. The study concluded that there was no benefit in the detection of early presence of disease by CA 125; this is consistent with the failure of second-look surgeries to provide improved outcomes after early detection of persistent disease. Monitoring CA 125 levels in follow-up may play a role in identifying appropriate candidates for secondary cytoreduction, although this strategy awaits confirmation with a randomized trial.

Local Modalities: Surgery and Radiation Therapy

Cytoreduction is often employed,[3] but such intervention only now is being studied in the setting of a randomized clinical trial (GOG-0213). The role of radiation therapy in patients with recurrent ovarian cancer has not been defined.

Systemic treatment options for patients with recurrent disease are subdivided as follows:

  1. Platinum-sensitive recurrence: for patients whose disease recurs more than 6 months after cessation of the induction (usually retreated with a platinum [cisplatin or carboplatin] and referred to as platinum sensitive).
  2. Platinum-refractory or platinum-resistant recurrence: for patients who progress prior to cessation of induction therapy (platinum refractory) or within 6 months after cessation (platinum resistant); in these patients, platinums are generally deemed toxic and not sufficiently useful to be part of the treatment plan.

Platinum-Sensitive Recurrence

Table 3. Regimens Used in First Relapse

Eligibility (mo)RegimenPatient NumberComparatorComments on Outcome (mo)
OS = overall survival; PFS = progression-free survival; PLD = pegylated liposomal doxorubicin.
a Trabectedin has been approved for use in treating recurrent ovarian cancer in Europe and Canada.
b OS data were not mature at the time the manuscript was published.[4]
Most Commonly Used
Platinum sensitive (>6)Cisplatin or carboplatin + paclitaxel802Single or nontaxane + platinumsPFS 11 vs. 9; OS 24 vs. 19[5]
Platinum sensitive (>6)Carboplatin + gemcitabine356CarboplatinPFS 8.6 vs. 5.8; OS 18 vs. 17[6]
Platinum sensitive (> 6)Carboplatin + pegylated liposomal doxorubicin976Carboplatin + paclitaxelPFS 11.3 vs 9.4; OS not reported[7]
Other Regimens
Platinum sensitive (>6)Carboplatin + epirubicin190CarboplatinPowered for response differences; OS 17 vs. 15[5]
Platinum sensitive (=12)Cisplatin + doxorubicin + cyclophosphamide97PaclitaxelPFS 15.7 vs. 9; OS 34.7 vs. 25.8[6]
Platinum sensitive + resistantPLD + trabectedina672PLDPFS 7.3 vs. 5.8; OS 20.5 vs. 19.4b

Carboplatin was approved in 1987 for the treatment of patients with ovarian cancer whose disease recurred after treatment with cisplatin, based on improved survival with etoposide or 5-fluorouracil.[8] In a randomized, phase II trial of paclitaxel, a currently used second-line drug, the cisplatin-containing combination of cisplatin plus doxorubicin plus cyclophosphamide (CAP) yielded a superior survival outcome. This, and subsequent studies (see Table 3), have reinforced using carboplatin as the treatment core for patients with platinum-sensitive recurrences. Cisplatin is occasionally used, particularly in combination with other drugs, because of its lesser myelosuppression, but this advantage over carboplatin is counterbalanced by its greater intolerance. Oxaliplatin, initially introduced with the hope that it would overcome platinum resistance, has activity mostly in platinum-sensitive patients [9] but has not been compared with carboplatin alone or in combinations.

With all platinums, outcome is generally better the longer the initial interval without recurrence from the initial platinum-containing regimens.[10] Therefore, on occasion, patients with platinum-sensitive recurrences relapsing within 1 year have been included in trials of nonplatinum drugs. In one such trial, comparing the pegylated liposomal doxorubicin (PLD) to topotecan, the subset of patients who were platinum sensitive had better outcomes with either drug (and in particular with PLD) relative to the platinum-resistant cohort.[11]

Several randomized trials have addressed whether the use of a platinum in combination with other chemotherapy agents is superior to single agents (see Table 3). In an analysis of data examining jointly the results of three trials performed by the Medical Research Council/Arbeitsgemeinschaft Gynaekologische Onkologie (MRC/AGO) and ICON investigators (known as ICON-4), a platinum-plus-paclitaxel combination yielded a superior outcome, in terms of response rates, progression-free survival (PFS), and overall survival (OS), compared with carboplatin as a single agent or other platinum-containing combinations as controls. Platinum plus paclitaxel was compared with several control regimens, although 71% used carboplatin as a single agent in the control, and 80% used carboplatin plus paclitaxel. Prolonged PFS (HR, 0.76; 95% CI, 0.66–0.89; P = .004) and OS (HR, 0.82; 95% CI, 0.69–0.97; P = .023) were improved in the platinum-plus-paclitaxel arm.[5]; [12][Level of evidence: 1iiA] The AGO had previously compared the combination of epirubicin plus carboplatin to carboplatin alone and had not found significant differences in outcome.

Another trial by European and Canadian groups compared gemcitabine plus carboplatin to carboplatin. The PFS of 8.6 months with the combination was significantly superior to 5.8 months for the carboplatin alone (HR, 0.72; 95% CI, 0.58–0.90; P = .003). The study was not powered to detect significant differences in OS, and the median survival for both arms was 18 months (HR, 0.96; CI, 0.75–1.23; P = .73).[7]

Carboplatin plus paclitaxel has been considered the standard regimen for platinum-sensitive recurrence in the absence of residual neurological toxic effects. The GOG-0213 trial is comparing this regimen to the experimental arm that adds bevacizumab to carboplatin plus paclitaxel.

In a phase III trial, carboplatin plus PLD (CD) was compared to carboplatin plus paclitaxel (CP) in patients with platinum-sensitive recurrence (>6 months). The primary endpoint was PFS with a median PFS for the CD arm of 11.3 months versus 9.4 months for the CP arm (HR, 0.823; 95% CI, 0.72–0.94; P = .005).[13][Level of evidence: 1iiDiii] The CP arm was associated with increased severe neutropenia, alopecia, neuropathy, and allergic reaction; the CD arm was associated with increased severe thrombocytopenia, nausea, and hand-foot syndrome. Although OS data have not been reported, given its toxicity profile and noninferiority to the standard regimen, CD is an important option for patients with platinum-sensitive recurrence.

Platinum-Refractory or Platinum-Resistant Recurrence

Clinical recurrences that take place within 6 months of completion of a platinum-containing regimen are considered platinum-refractory or platinum-resistant recurrences. Anthracyclines (particularly when formulated as PLD), taxanes, topotecan, and gemcitabine are used as single agents for these recurrences based on activity and their favorable therapeutic indices relative to agents listed in Table 4. The long list underscores the marginal benefit, if any, generally conveyed by these agents. Patients with platinum-resistant disease should be encouraged to enter clinical trials.

Treatment with paclitaxel historically provided the first agent with consistent activity in patients with platinum-refractory or platinum-resistant recurrences.[14,15,16,17,18] Subsequently, randomized studies have indicated that the use of topotecan achieved results that were comparable to those achieved with paclitaxel.[19] Topotecan was compared with PLD in a randomized trial of 474 patients and demonstrated similar response rates, PFS, and OS at the time of the initial report, which was contributed primarily by the platinum-resistant subsets.[20]

Drugs used to treat platinum-refractory or platinum-resistant recurrence:

  1. Topotecan. In phase II studies, topotecan administered intravenously on days 1 to 5 of a 21-day cycle yielded objective response rates ranging from 13% to 16.3% and other outcomes that were equivalent or superior to paclitaxel.[19,21,22,23] Objective responses are reported in patients with platinum-refractory disease. Substantial myelosuppression follows administration. Other toxic effects include nausea, vomiting, alopecia, and asthenia. A number of schedules and oral formulations are under evaluation. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Nausea and Vomiting for more information.)

    The combination of weekly topotecan and biweekly bevacizumab was evaluated in a phase II study that showed an objective response rate of 25% (all partial responses) in a platinum-resistant patient population.[24] The most common grade 3 and grade 4 toxicities were hypertension, neutropenia, and gastrointestinal (GI) toxicity, though no bowel perforations occurred.

  2. PLD. A phase II study of encapsulated doxorubicin given IV once every 21 to 28 days demonstrated one complete response and eight partial responses in 35 patients with platinum-refractory or paclitaxel-refractory disease (response rate, 25.7%).[25] In general, liposomal doxorubicin has few acute side effects other than hypersensitivity. The most frequent toxic effects are usually observed after the first cycle and are more pronounced following dose rates exceeding 10 mg/m2 per week and include stomatitis and hand-foot syndrome. Neutropenia and nausea are minimal, and alopecia rarely occurs.[25]

    Liposomal doxorubicin and topotecan have been compared in a randomized trial of 474 patients with recurrent ovarian cancer.[20] Response rates (19.7% vs. 17.0%; P = .390), PFS (16.1 wk vs. 17.0 wk; P = .095), and OS (60 wk vs. 56.7 wk; P = .341) did not differ significantly between the liposomal doxorubicin and topotecan arms, respectively.[20][Level of evidence: 1iiA] Survival was longer for the patients with platinum-sensitive disease who received liposomal doxorubicin.[11]

  3. Docetaxel. This drug has shown activity in paclitaxel-pretreated patients and is a reasonable alternative to weekly paclitaxel in the recurrent setting.[26]
  4. Gemcitabine. Several phase II trials of gemcitabine as a single agent administered IV on days 1, 8, and 15 of a 28-day cycle have been reported. The response rate ranges from 13% to 19% in evaluable patients. Responses have been observed in patients whose disease is platinum refractory and/or paclitaxel refractory as well as in patients with bulky disease. Leukopenia, anemia, and thrombocytopenia are the most common toxic effects. Many patients report transient flu-like symptoms and a rash following drug administration. Other toxic effects, including nausea, are usually mild.[27,28,29] (Refer to the anemia section in the PDQ summary on Fatigue and refer to the PDQ summary on Nausea and Vomiting for more information.)

    A randomized trial of gemcitabine versus PLD showed noninferiority and no advantage in therapeutic index of one drug over the other.[30]

  5. Paclitaxel. Patients generally received paclitaxel in front-line induction regimens. Retreatment with paclitaxel, particularly in weekly schedules, indicates an activity comparable to those of the preceding drugs. If there is residual neuropathy upon recurrence, this may shift the choice of treatment towards other agents.

    In a phase III study, 235 patients who did not respond to initial treatment with a platinum-based regimen but who had not previously received paclitaxel or topotecan, were randomly assigned to receive either topotecan as a 30-minute infusion daily for 5 days every 21 days or paclitaxel as a 3-hour infusion every 21 days.[19] The overall objective response rate was 20.5% for those patients who were randomly assigned to treatment with topotecan and 13.2% for those patients who were randomly assigned to treatment with paclitaxel (P = .138). Both groups experienced myelosuppression and GI toxic effects. Nausea and vomiting, fatigue, and infection were observed more commonly following treatment with topotecan, whereas alopecia, arthralgia, myalgia, and neuropathy were observed more commonly following paclitaxel.[19] (Refer to the PDQ summary on Gastrointestinal Complications for information on gastrointestinal toxic effects; refer to the PDQ summary on Nausea and Vomiting and the PDQ summary on Fatigue; and, refer to the PDQ summary on Pain for information on arthralgia, myalgia, and neuropathy.)

  6. Bevacizumab. Three phase II studies have shown activity for this antibody to vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF).

    The first study (GOG-0170D) included 62 patients who had received only one or two prior treatments (these last patients had received one additional platinum-based regimen because of an initial interval of 12 months or greater after first-line regimens and also had to have a performance status of 0 or 1).[31] Patients received a dose of 15 mg/kg every 21 days; there were two complete responses and 11 partial responses, a median PFS of 4.7 months, and an OS of 17 months. This activity was noted in both platinum-sensitive and platinum-resistant subsets.

    The second study only included patients with platinum-resistant disease using an identical dose schedule, but the study was stopped because five of 44 patients experienced bowel perforations, one of them fatal; seven partial responses had been observed.[32] This increased risk of bowel perforations was associated with three or more prior treatments.[33,34,35][Level of evidence: 3iiiDii]

    The third study (CCC-PHII-45) included 70 patients who received 50 mg of oral cyclophosphamide daily, in addition to bevacizumab (10 mg/kg every 2 wk); 17 partial responses were observed and four patients had intestinal perforations.[36]

  7. Pemetrexed. A randomized, double-blind, phase II European trial with 102 patients evaluated pemetrexed at two doses: standard (500 mg/m2) versus high-dose (900 mg/m2) IV every 3 weeks.[37] The response rate was 9.3% for the standard dose and 10.4% for the high dose. The toxicity profile favored the standard dose with fatigue, and nausea and vomiting, as the most common severe toxicities.

    A phase II study by the Gynecologic Oncology Group utilized pemetrexed (900 mg/m2) IV every 3 weeks in 51 patients with platinum-resistant recurrent disease.[38] The response rate was 21% in a heavily pretreated population in which 39% had five or more prior regimens. Myelosuppression and fatigue were the most common severe toxicities.

Other drugs used to treat platinum-refractory or platinum-resistant recurrence

This group includes drugs that are not fully confirmed to have activity in a platinum-resistant setting, have a less desirable therapeutic index, and have a level of evidence lower than 3iiiDiv.

Table 4. Other Drugs That Have Been Used in the Setting of Recurrent Ovarian Cancer(Efficacy Not Well Defined After Failure of Platinum-Containing Regimens)

DrugsDrug ClassMajor ToxicitiesComments
EtoposideTopoisomerase II inhibitorMyelosuppression; alopeciaOral; rare leukemia dampens interest
Cyclophosphamide and several other bischloroethylaminesAlkylating agentsMyelosuppression; alopecia (only the oxazaphosphorines)Leukemia and cystitis; uncertain activity after platinums
Hexamethylmelamine (Altretamine)Unknown but probably alkylating prodrugsEmesis and neurotoxicityOral; uncertain activity after platinums
IrinotecanTopoisomerase I inhibitorDiarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptomsCross-resistant to topotecan
OxaliplatinPlatinumNeuropathy, emesis, myelosuppressionCross-resistant to usual platinums, but less so
VinorelbineMitotic inhibitorMyelosuppressionErratic activity
Fluorouracil and capecitabineFluoropyrimidine antimetabolitesGastrointestinal symptoms and myelosuppressionCapecitabine is oral; may be useful in mucinous tumors
TamoxifenAntiestrogenThromboembolismOral; minimal activity, perhaps more in subsets

Treatment Options for Patients with Recurrent or Persistent Disease

  1. Secondary cytoreduction has been advocated, but it remains controversial.[3] The GOG-0213 trial, active in 2008, is attempting to define its role.
  2. For patients with platinum-sensitive disease (i.e., =6–12 mo between completion of a platinum-based regimen and the development of recurrent disease), retreatment with a platinum or platinum-containing combination, such as carboplatin, should be considered (see Table 3).
  3. For patients with platinum-refractory or platinum-resistant disease (i.e., disease that has progressed while on a platinum-based regimen or has recurred within 6 months of completion of a platinum-based regimen), clinical trials should be considered. For patients who are not entering a trial, treatment with one of the drugs listed above should be considered.
  4. Other agents that have shown activity in phase II trials are listed in Table 4 and may also be used alone or in combination with other drugs, but such treatments are best done in prospective trials.

Current Clinical Trials

Check for U.S. clinical trials from NCI's list of cancer clinical trials that are now accepting patients with recurrent ovarian epithelial cancer. The list of clinical trials can be further narrowed by location, drug, intervention, and other criteria.

General information about clinical trials is also available from the NCI Web site.


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  2. Rustin GJ, van der Burg ME, Griffin CL, et al.: Early versus delayed treatment of relapsed ovarian cancer (MRC OV05/EORTC 55955): a randomised trial. Lancet 376 (9747): 1155-63, 2010.
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  9. Piccart MJ, Green JA, Lacave AJ, et al.: Oxaliplatin or paclitaxel in patients with platinum-pretreated advanced ovarian cancer: A randomized phase II study of the European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer Gynecology Group. J Clin Oncol 18 (6): 1193-202, 2000.
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  16. Einzig AI, Wiernik PH, Sasloff J, et al.: Phase II study and long-term follow-up of patients treated with taxol for advanced ovarian adenocarcinoma. J Clin Oncol 10 (11): 1748-53, 1992.
  17. Thigpen JT, Blessing JA, Ball H, et al.: Phase II trial of paclitaxel in patients with progressive ovarian carcinoma after platinum-based chemotherapy: a Gynecologic Oncology Group study. J Clin Oncol 12 (9): 1748-53, 1994.
  18. Trimble EL, Adams JD, Vena D, et al.: Paclitaxel for platinum-refractory ovarian cancer: results from the first 1,000 patients registered to National Cancer Institute Treatment Referral Center 9103. J Clin Oncol 11 (12): 2405-10, 1993.
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  25. Muggia FM, Hainsworth JD, Jeffers S, et al.: Phase II study of liposomal doxorubicin in refractory ovarian cancer: antitumor activity and toxicity modification by liposomal encapsulation. J Clin Oncol 15 (3): 987-93, 1997.
  26. Berkenblit A, Seiden MV, Matulonis UA, et al.: A phase II trial of weekly docetaxel in patients with platinum-resistant epithelial ovarian, primary peritoneal serous cancer, or fallopian tube cancer. Gynecol Oncol 95 (3): 624-31, 2004.
  27. Friedlander M, Millward MJ, Bell D, et al.: A phase II study of gemcitabine in platinum pre-treated patients with advanced epithelial ovarian cancer. Ann Oncol 9 (12): 1343-5, 1998.
  28. Lund B, Hansen OP, Theilade K, et al.: Phase II study of gemcitabine (2',2'-difluorodeoxycytidine) in previously treated ovarian cancer patients. J Natl Cancer Inst 86 (20): 1530-3, 1994.
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  35. Kaye SB: Bevacizumab for the treatment of epithelial ovarian cancer: will this be its finest hour? J Clin Oncol 25 (33): 5150-2, 2007.
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